I have something to say about last week’s story “about the vice president” (as most people are terming it):
Freedom of Speech
Steve Howards, 54, and his wife were walking their son to piano practice in Beaver Creek, Colo., and were surprised to see Vice President Dick Cheney on the street chatting with citizens. “Many of us fantasize what would we do if we had the opportunity to really tell Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney how we feel,” Howards said, so as he passed by he told Cheney, “I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible.” After dropping off his son, a Secret Service agent approached Howards and asked, “Did you assault the vice president?” Howards said no, and made it clear he didn’t even attempt to touch Cheney. “If this had happened, I would think if they were doing their job, I would have been face-down in the concrete five or 10 minutes earlier,” he said later. Still, he was handcuffed and jailed, with the Secret Service demanding he be charged with harassment. The Eagle County District Attorney dropped the charge. Howards has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing Secret Service agent Virgil D. Reichle Jr. with civil rights violations. (Rocky Mountain News) …Dick Cheney’s America: where exercising one’s rights has become an act of courage.
Hundreds of readers unsubscribed in protest; some even paused long enough to tell me about it. [I had a link to the source article in this spot, but the Rocky Mountain News shut down, and that story is no longer online.]
I realize that the vast, vast majority of my readers knows I’m completely non-partisan — I’m quite happy to bash politicians and their handlers for doing stupid things, and it doesn’t matter to me one bit whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, or in any of the other parties who try to make a dent, but have a difficult time prying their way into the two party system (e.g., the Libertarians and the Greens, to name just a couple).
Unfortunately, a small minority will seize upon one story and scream “SEE?! This PROVES you’re a heartless arch conservative!” or “A HAH! This PROVES you’re a left-wing bleeding-heart liberal!” Literally — I get both accusations on a regular basis, which you know if you’ve been reading long enough. That this is true is “proof” enough to me that there’s nothing partisan about my commentary.
But why is it a “Republican bash” this time? Well, think about it: who controls the House? The Republicans. Who controls the Senate? The Republicans. Who controls the White House? The Republicans. There are currently 28 Republican state governors vs. 22 Democratic state governors. The Republicans are in power, folks; that’s who’s going to be in the news more, and that’s the type of story that will be covered more. Duh. (During eight years of Clinton, the shoe was on the other foot — and yes, during that time liberals complained about True’s stories more than conservatives did. Again: Duh!)
Not That Powerful
Then there were the cries of “Why NOW, just before the election!?” The answer is simple: because that’s when the story came to my attention. I read stories in the paper, then I write about them and move on. It’s as simple as that. (But I can’t tell you how amused I am at the implication that something I write could have any possible effect on a national election. What a concept! Some of you think I have so much power sitting in my rural Colorado home office!)
Quite a few people called the story “one-sided” and I should have dug into it more deeply. What, maybe I should have called Cheney for his comments?
Even if I could, as I’ve been pointing out again and again (and again) recently, this is a news commentary column. I don’t write the news, I summarize it so I can comment on it. Not one reader said I “should have dug into” the story about the hooker fighting off the cop!
“What if,” several of these people opined, the guy who is suing the Secret Service is not telling the whole story, that maybe he “Got into the V.P.’s face and yelled” or “really did shove him” or something? Get real: they’re arguing the guy did that and was allowed to walk away? And the Secret Service was only able to catch up to him ten minutes later when he voluntarily walked back to the spot? I find that way too far-fetched to even consider.
Even if he really did manage that, exactly why would the local D.A. then refuse to press charges? An actual assault on the V.P.? You bet he would! See what I mean when I say you should think before you spout?
No Win for the Secret Service
But the main objection seems to be that I “slammed” Cheney when it was really the Secret Service guy who was at fault. The most reasonable argument on this front was a reader who pointed out that the Secret Service “has to” err on the side of caution, and has been doing so ever since Reagan was shot and nearly killed. But even then, he continued, this is obviously a gross Secret Service overreaction and the Secret Service agent deserves the rap, not Cheney.
And you know, I might agree with that if there weren’t other things going on to show that this sort of attitude wasn’t at least partly trickling down from the top. Like what? I’m sure some would point to the “Patriot Act”. Others would point out that Congress recently handed the National Guard over to the President — the Guard was set up specifically under the command of state governors, not the president, to spread that military power out a bit. But after more than 125 years, that has suddenly changed: Public Law 109-364, aka the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 (HR 5122), specifically gives the president the power to declare martial law and deploy troops against the citizens of the U.S.
Why? We were this close to losing World War II, and that didn’t show the need for such a change in the law. We were at the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets, and that didn’t show the need for such a change in the law. But a pipsqueak terrorist bastard hiding in the deserts of Afghanistan does justify such a radical consolidation of power away from governors, where it was put on purpose? Why? And where was the public debate about the need for such a thing?
There’s very little about this in the mainstream press. To see some of the few pieces that I have found, try the Chattanoogan in Tennessee: here, or another, from the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Advocate (alas, no longer online). The Chattanoogan goes overboard, I think — “Bush Prepares to Impose Martial Law” — no, I doubt that he’s actually planning on invoking it. But he can. Why the sudden change in a deeply rooted national policy?
Those are just two examples. I’m sure actual bleeding-heart liberals could supply more, but piling on isn’t the point. The point is, this sort of thing helps to explain why I’m seeing a certain a bumper sticker more and more around town lately (and I live in a very Republican area): “I Love My Country but Fear My Government.” I simply put that fear into the context of the story I described above, and put my own twist on it for the tagline: “Dick Cheney’s America: where exercising one’s rights has become an act of courage.”
I think it makes sense, but that’s just one opinion; yours may differ. And that’s fine: That doesn’t make you wrong, and it doesn’t make me partisan. And I’m even fine with your judging my writing. All I ask is that you judge the entire body of work, and not let one story push a button so hard that you feel the need to react before stopping to think about the bigger issues I illustrate in True.
Now get out and vote!
The question of whether Howard should be able to sue or not went all the way to the Supreme Court. But it was destined to fail: Chief Justice John Roberts said before any hearings that he didn’t want an agent to hesitate to take action thinking, “if I’m wrong, I may be held personally liable in damages for taking some action that some jury somewhere is going to say is based on retaliation rather than my obligation to protect the vice president.”
Indeed, on June 4, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled against Howards’ suit going forward 8-0 (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself).
In the written opinion on the case, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the law was “unsettled” on the matter. That didn’t sit well with Howard’s attorney, David Lane.
“I’ve never seen the Supreme Court say the law is unsettled and precede not to settle it,” Lane said, “which is exactly what they did.” It was, he thought, rather “a compromise. They got the left side of the court to go along with Thomas on the condition that no significant First Amendment issues were to be resolved. So it was probably a four-four tie, because Kagan recused herself, and this is their way of punting.”
However, while Howards’ lawsuit was prevented from going forward, Lane said, “they left untouched the entire First Amendment, because they avoided deciding any of the difficult issues we presented to them. So no damage was done to the First Amendment.”
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